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Exhibition: the capricious art and life of Chrystabel Aitken

New exhibition explores the capricious art and life of Chrystabel Aitken

Chrystabel Aitken, Caprice, linocut, c.1944, UC-MBL-1797 (Credit: University of Canterbury Art Collection)

A new University of Canterbury exhibition, Caprice, explores the life and work of Chrystabel Aitken (1907-2005), a remarkably versatile and ambitious artist highly regarded for her depiction of animals, particularly horses.

Aitken was a member of the Christchurch Group from 1936 and was assistant to the official sculptor William Trethewey in preparation for the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington in 1940. Her strength in decorative design reflects her active role in New Zealand’s Arts and Crafts movement.

The exhibition reveals the breadth of Aitken’s creative pursuits featuring wallpaper and book designs alongside prints, sketches, portraiture, ceramics and sculpture. Caprice provides a fascinating glimpse into the opportunities and independence acquired by women via study at the Canterbury College School of Art during the 1920s and 1930s.

In an exhibition floor talk on Friday 6 October, UC art historian Dr Rosie Ibbotson will speak about the Arts and Crafts aesthetics and introduced species, then exhibition curator Lydia Baxendell will speak about Aitken’s life and art practice.

Baxendell says she has been drawn to Aitken’s work for a long time and believes the artist has been overlooked for too long.

“At art school her teacher told her not pursue a career as a sculptor based on her gender. This typifies the way many female artists of this period were disregarded. Despite this, Chrystabel persisted. Caprice is an opportunity to acknowledge an overlooked artist and teacher of considerable skill,” she says.

Born in Southland, Aitken enrolled in study at Canterbury College School of Art in 1922 and later taught there. A talented student who excelled in all areas, she was encouraged by teachers James Johnstone and Francis Shurrock (becoming his assistant c.1924). The University of Canterbury Art Collectionholds over 40 works by the artist in a variety of media.

UC Fine Arts students Dannii Quick and Annabel Ambrosius are assisting with the exhibition which links to their course work, particularly the Art History paperIn search of Nowhere: the international Arts and Crafts Movement.

“The art handling and installation aspect of the curatorial process will be an interesting learning curve as a first timer but it will be a great inside glimpse of creating a cohesive exhibition, and another set of skills I would be able to use in future endeavours,” Annabel says.

Caprice – the art of Chrystabel Aitken exhibition runs 8 Sep – 6 Oct 2017, in the Matariki Gallery, Matariki building (opposite Puaka-James Hight Library), University of Canterbury, Ilam, Christchurch. An Exhibition Floor Talk begins at midday on Friday, 6 October 2017 in the Matariki Gallery.


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